by Nicholas Boer:
It took 100 years, but Livermore has reached a tipping point. The town once known as home to the longest-burning light bulb, June rodeo (we've had 94), and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, is now wine country in the minds of oenophiles, cowboys, and scientists alike!
In 1912 there were just a handful of wineries, and when I started Granada High School in 1976 there were still just five. That was the year Fenestra Winery opened and when bottles of their True Red began appearing on our dining room table (I believe True Red was my introduction to the wine world). It's then that the number of wineries began to slowly rise. When I started as the food editor at the Contra Costa Times in 2000, the number had tripled to 15, and then it skyrocketed. With more than 50 wineries today, it's clear that my hometown has arrived.
Wente Vineyards, celebrating a century of Chardonnay this year is far and away the biggest, with multiple labels and 32 grape varietals to play with. It's also the only winery with a top-tier restaurant (recently receiving a rare three-star food review from the San Francisco Chronicle). Their Ivan Tamas label wines, such as Pinot Grigio, can be had for under $10, while Wente's Nth Degree line offers award-winning varietals at three-to-five times that price.
But while The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards was the only game in town for decades, the restaurant scene in Livermore has truly blossomed this past year, presenting an opportunity to wine and dine without spending a fortune or hopping from winery to winery.
The Winemaker's Pourhouse, which opened last year on First Street, might be the best place to get started. They offer a wide selection of Livermore-only wines, including a selection of flights allowing those unfamiliar with the Valley to try a range of wineries side by side. Rustic Italian dining can be found at Terra Mia and contemporary Mexican was recently unveiled at Livermore's El Sacromonte. Once you find a winery or two that really intrigues you, head on over directly, knowing it probably won't take more than 15 minutes to get there. Another great thing about exploring Livermore Valley now, while it's just coming into its own, is that the families running the wineries are still present, personable, and happy to see you.
When you've tried a few and are beginning to lag, consider a gourmet pit stop at Underdog, tucked into the venerable Concannon winery. Underdog is a space-age (or at least Manhattan) looking wine bar on grounds that have been around for nearly 140 years. Another modern wine bar with fantastic food (focusing more on California and international selections), is Double Barrel, smack in downtown Livermore. There are plenty of places to spend the night, too, of course, including The Purple Orchid Inn, which recently got a handsome makeover.
The most beautiful time to come to Livermore is harvest season, when the vineyards are heavy with grapes and the fall weather begins to descend. Livermore holds its Harvest Wine Celebration each Labor Day (see www.LVwine.org), which provides the opportunity to taste a number of wines without all the driving. Or head to a Taste of Terroir on July 19 in Pleasanton, where you can sip and taste from the Valley's best. The LVwine.org Web site has tickets and details, as well a helpful search engine that allows you to find accommodations, as well as which wineries offer food, picnic areas, and have special events on their calendar.
While it might make sense to hold off on your first visit to Livermore Wine Country until the grapes are ready to burst, the time to plan is now. You can start your research with a bottle or two at home.